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5 Cardiovascular Fitness Tips for Dancers

5 Cardiovascular Fitness Considerations for Dancers

by Alyssa Hartley, PT, DPT, CMTPTLeave a Comment

Dancers’ leaps, turns, and lifts can seemingly defy laws of physics. In order to jump higher and turn faster, dancers must implement cross-training for strength and endurance. Dancers from around the world have faced new challenges practicing at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, it is important for dancers to pursue physical fitness outside of traditional dance class to ultimately improve their technical abilities for when they hit the stage in the future.

1. Dancers Are Athletes

All genres of dance require explosiveness and stamina while maintaining strict aesthetic technique and musical precision. For these reasons, dancers are considered “performing athletes.”1 However, studies done on professional dancers have shown decreased cardiovascular values compared to many different athletes of the same age, including swimmers, soccer players, and gymnasts.1,2 Although choreography and styles vary constantly within a dance company, dancers need to have physical strength (muscle power and endurance), and cardiorespiratory fitness (aerobic and anaerobic capabilities).3 Not to mention, decreased levels of physical fitness have been correlated with high levels of injuries.4 Supplementary strength and cardio exercise could delay onset of fatigue and thus decrease rate of injury with fatigue.3 If we can prevent injury with improved physical fitness, we can also save dancers’ bodies and companies’ money by reducing the need for medical intervention.

2. Demands of Class and Performance Are Not Equal

Dancers are used to long hours in the studio in class and rehearsals. However, research is proving that dancers are not at the appropriate fitness level by the time they perform.5 One major issue is that dance classes in the studio do not solely improve strength or cardiovascular fitness. While dance performance can be high-intensity, dance class and rehearsal may not adequately challenge the body’s energy systems to the level of dance performance.5 For example, one study found that during performances, dancers spent many more minutes at a heart rate above 160 beats-per-minute compared to class.6 Studies have consistently shown that dance classes with rest periods do not support the cardiovascular demands to increase a dancer’s fitness. Center floor exercises are more demanding in short spurts, and they are usually followed with long rest periods after each combination. After the choreographer has created the work, rehearsals do begin to push dancers’ cardiorespiratory limits. However, this is usually just before performances and may be too late in the process to change physical adaptations.3
While daily technique class does improve movement quality, there are ways to utilize class to improve strength and cardiorespiratory fitness. A few suggestions include a higher intensity warm-up and increasing repetitions and movement combinations with short rest periods.

3. What is Cardiorespiratory Fitness?

Cardiorespiratory fitness is a low to moderately-intense activity over an extended period of time, essentially, anaerobic exercise. Alternately, the body uses the anaerobic system which provides the body with a massive surge of power over a few seconds, or high power maintained for 30-60 seconds.1 The anaerobic system is being used with one big leap across the stage, or sequence of fast-moving break dancing. Both, aerobic and anaerobic power systems are important for dancers. Even though dance movement is usually characterized by intermittent, high-intensity (or anaerobic) exercise, it is ideal for dancers to develop cardiorespiratory fitness through aerobic activities. A performer with good cardiorespiratory fitness, especially good aerobic capacity, will recover faster between intervals of exercise.5 The better the aerobic system is working, the less the anaerobic system has to kick in at high intensities. This means, a dancer can be less fatigued with harder work.4

4. The Importance of Strength

Dancers need to constantly improve strength for many reasons. One reason is that innovative choreography is pushing the boundaries on partner lifts, leg extension height, and the use of heavy props. Another key reason is improved strength prevents injury. Studies on ballet dancers found that the lower the dancers’ thigh strength levels, the greater the degree of injury.7 Strength also improves dancers’ bone health.4 One study on intermediate and advanced dancers showed that those that simply maintained their typical dance classes for six weeks did not see a change in strength or power, while those that supplemented with a strength program did test stronger.8 Thus dancers need to add more supplemental strengthening into their weekly schedule.

5. Begin a Cross-Training Routine at Home

As you can see, it is not a matter of if, but rather how to incorporate fitness into dance practicum. Any person’s fitness program should be planned based on their starting level of activity and ultimate goals. It is important to note that the below training recommendations are geared more towards pre-professional and professional dancers as novice and adolescent students are still more focused on technique than performance. While there is no perfect fitness routine, we can use research and our exercise physiology knowledge to establish some good outlines.5

At Athletico, our Performing Arts Physical Therapists can help dancers reach their goals by first assessing the dancer’s strength and endurance levels and treating any acute or chronic injuries. Our specialized Physical Therapists are skilled in developing a strength and conditioning program to get dancers to their full performance capabilities. After all “an efficient and able body supports greater freedom for artistic expression.”4


For a Low-Intensity Cardiovascular Fitness Foundation:

1 minute continuous dancing, 2 minute rest x4 rounds*
= 12 min total of work**

*Try to perform dance movements at a 106 beats per minute tempo on a metronome on your phone.10
**Add consecutive 12-minute segments as the routine becomes easier, working up to 20-40 minutes total.5


For Moderate-Intensity Cardiovascular Training:

20 sec: “sprint” (as fast as possible, petite allegro or plyometric exercises)
2 min: “adagio” (active-recovery, fluid and slower movements)
20 sec: “sprint”
2 min: “adagio”
20 sec: “sprint”
= 5 min total of work3*

*Add consecutive 5-minute segments as the routine becomes easier, working up to 20-40 minutes total.5

When 20-40 minutes with these intervals is less fatiguing, begin to shorten the “adagio” time to 60 seconds, and then 30 seconds to further progress the training program.5


For High-Intensity Performance-Level Training*:

Implement a 1:1 exercise to active rest ratio**

15-30 sec: “sprint” (as fast as possible, petite allegro or sprint-like plyometric exercises)
15-30 sec: “across the floor” (low-intensity, barre or across the floor combination)
15-30 sec: “sprint”
15-30 sec: “across the floor”
15-30 sec: “sprint”
15-30 sec: “across the floor”
15-30 sec: “sprint”
15-30 sec: “across the floor”
15-30 sec: “sprint”
15-30 sec: “across the floor”
15-30 sec: “sprint”
15-30 sec: “across the floor”
= 6 rounds total, or 3-6 min of total of work before rest

*First calculate your age-specific heart rate maximum with (220 minus your age)
** Then, specifically, aim to be 90-95% of age-specific heart rate maximum. This is the heart rate level that multiple studies found in dancers while performing on stage.5, 10
***The higher the achieved heart rate, the shorter the bout of exercise can be.5


Always safely begin with low and moderate-intensity programs first, before attempting high-intensity intervals. Cardio sessions should be completed 3-4x/week when beginning to build cardiovascular fitness, then less frequently during intensive performance seasons.

Strength Training Exercises:

Start program with body weight or light resistance (using bands or dumbbells).
Initially, choose only 4, multi-segment, strength or plyometric exercises per session.
As always, exercises should be performed focusing on form over speed.
Perform 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions of each exercise.8

• Burpees with or without jump
• Mountain climbers
• Lateral lunges with forward shoulder raise
• Push-ups with renegade rows
• Jackknifes
• Deadlifts with bent over row
• Single leg deadlift or “teeterbirds”
• Squat to press or 2nd position plie to 5th portdebras
• Side steps with scapular pull aparts or 2nd portdebras
• “Birddogs”- quadruped or plank
• Forward plank with leg lifts or shoulder taps
• Side plank with leg lifts or trunk rotations
• “ Supermans” with lat pull downs
• Bench press with bridge
• Side plank with clamshell
• Reverse lunge with overhead press or 4th position plie to 5th pordebras
• Grande allegro leap in place
• Lateral skater jumps or glissades

A strength program should be done at least 2x/week for 6 weeks, but studies suggest an even longer training time for greater improvement.8 To keep improving, dancers should continue to increase the number of repetitions or sets of each exercise. Dancers can also increase speed, height, or resistance with strength or plyometric movements.4

To learn more about our performing arts rehabilitation services, contact us at PerformingArts@Athletico.com.

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

References:
1. Koutedakis, Yiannis & Jamurtas, Thanasis. (2004). The Dancer as a Performing Athlete. Sports Medicine. 34. 651-661. 10.2165/00007256-200434100-00003.
2. Koutedakis, Yannis. The Fit and Healthy Dancer. John Wiley, 1999.
3. Rodrigues-Krause, Josianne & Krause, Mauricio & Reischak-Oliveira, Alvaro. (2015). Cardiorespiratory Considerations in Dance: From Classes to Performances. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. 19. 91-102. 10.12678/1089-313X.19.3.91.
4. Rafferty S. (2010). Considerations for integrating fitness into dance training. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, 14(2), 45–49.
5. Wyon, Matthew. (2005). Cardiorespiratory Training for Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science. 9. 7-12.
6. Wyon, Matthew & Redding, Emma & Abt, Grant & Head, A. & Sharp, N.. (2003). Development, reliability, and validity of a multistage dance specific aerobic fitness test (DAFT). Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. 7. 80-84.
7. Koutedakis, Yiannis & Khaloula, M. & Pacy, PJ & Murphy, Marie & Dunbar, Joe. (1997). Thigh Peak Torques and Lower-Body Injuries in Dancers. J Dance Med Sci. 1.
8. Kozai, Andrea & Wells, Tobin & Schade, Margaret & Smith, Denise & Fehling, Patricia. (2007). Effects of Plyometric Training Versus Traditional Weight Training on Strength, Power, and Aesthetic Jumping Ability in Female Collegiate Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. 11.
9. Koutedakis, Yiannis & Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou, Antonios & Metsios, George. (2005). The Significance of Muscular Strength in Dance. J Dance Med Sci. 9.
10. Redding, Emma & Weller, Peter & Ehrenberg, Shantel & Kenny, Sarah & Quin, Edel & Rafferty, Sonia & Wyon, Matthew & Cox, Carol. (2009). The development of a high intensity dance performance fitness test. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. 13. 3-9.

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